Johnson, Scott Morrow. Phog: The Most Influential Man in Basketball. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 376. 26 photographs, notes and index. $29.95 Hardcover.
Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
In Kansas, basketball is a religion. Allen Fieldhouse, opened in March of 1955, is widely recognized as one of its most hallowed temple. Its floor, where a giant Jayhawk looms at center court, is named for the game’s inventor, James Naismith. In the rafters hangs a sign that reads “Pay Heed All Those Who Enter, Beware of the Phog,” warning opponents of the mystical powers deep within the old barn. Outside of the building, which houses Naismith’s original rules in its newly added Booth Hall of Athletics wing, stands a twelve-foot tall statue, dedicated to Forrest C. Allen. If this doesn’t give you chills, just wait until the crowd of 16,500 fans starts the famous Rock Chalk chant.
Forrest C. “Phog” Allen is central to the lore of the University of Kansas (KU) basketball program, and, as Scott Morrow Johnson suggests in his new biography of Allen, the entire sport of basketball. In Phog: The Most Influential Man in Basketball, Johnson endeavors to tell the story behind the man whom everyone’s heard of but few truly know. The book recounts the life of “Phog” Allen from his youth in Independence, Missouri to his successful coaching career at the University of Kansas. A veteran journalist and freelance writer, Johnson’s great grandfather was an All-American on the KU basketball team in the late-1920s, helping foster a connection with Allen’s granddaughter, Judy Allen Morris. She encouraged his research and helped him to build on previously unpublished research by Arthur McClure to complete the much-needed biography of her grandfather.
Johnson follows Allen’s life chronologically, beginning each chapter with a brief anecdote before delving into the details of each period of his life. The book begins by outlining the Allen family history and Phog’s upbringing before quickly turning to his obsession with basketball. Early in his life it was a family affair, with each of Phog’s brothers joining him on a team that routinely beat local challengers throughout the Kansas City area. This success led the Allen boys to host a World Series of basketball against the Buffalo, NY YMCA team in 1904 at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. The event became a commercial success – foreshadowing much of Allen’s later career, and facilitated his introduction to James Naismith, who served as a referee.
Naismith quickly became Allen’s mentor, and the following year he enrolled at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS to study and play basketball under his tutelage. After just one season in Lawrence, Allen quit the team to pursue a coaching opportunity as well as a much-needed paycheck at nearby Baker University. Naismith did his best to dissuade his young protégé, but failed. Soon, Allen found himself coaching three teams, adding the Haskell Institute and KU to his busy schedule. During this time he also married Bessie Milton and started a family. Johnson does a solid job of describing this early period of Allen’s life, but the narrative is repetitive in places and shows a presentist bend that clouds his understanding of early college athletics in the state of Kansas. There are also small errors in the names of early figures and institutions. Few readers will notice these shortcomings, but they gloss over the contingency of Allen’s early career, suggesting a somewhat preordained path.
By 1909, Allen resigned his coaching duties at all three institutions and enrolled in Osteopathy school in Kansas City. After earning his degree, he returns to coaching, serving as Athletic Director, football and basketball coach at Missouri Normal School in Warrensburg (now the University of Central Missouri). While Allen’s medical training became a valuable asset later in his career and many high-profile athletes — such as George Halas, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams — and coaches — like Knute Rockne, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Casey Stengel, and Pop Warner — sought out his remedies, it also caused a rift in the community while he was coaching in Warrensburg. Johnson fails to fully explain the controversial nature of osteopathic medicine at the time, missing a chance to connect Allen’s career with the early history of medicine.
Once Allen lands back at KU as athletics manager and head basketball coach for the 1919-1920 season, the narrative takes off. The reader is treated to an intimate portrait of Allen’s family life, personality, health habits, and game day routine. Indeed, he earns the nickname “Phog” for his foghorn like voice, and constant outspokenness. Throughout his career Allen speaks his mind and often clashes with those around. He has a brief falling out with both James Naismith and former player and famed Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp over differences of opinion and their vision of college athletics. He also sparred with the AAU and NCAA, though he later claimed, “I am too busy to hold a grudge! And especially with the ‘Asinine and Unfair’ or the ‘Nationally Confused Athletic Absurdity’” (p. 256).
The importance of Allen to the game of basketball is evident throughout the book, especially in his coaching tree – which includes the likes of John Bunn, Dutch Lonborg, Ralph Miller, Adolph Rupp, and Dean Smith – and friendship with Naismith. He founded and presided over the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and helped form the NCAA tournament. Allen was also involved in petitioning to have the sport included in the Olympics, despite Avery Brundage’s disagreement, and ensuring that Naismith was present to see it played at the 1936 Olympics. Allen also played an important role in having the basketball hall of fame named in Naismith’s honor.
Between these accomplishments, Johnson chronicles Allen’s coaching and administrative career at Kansas. As the Jayhawks’ coach he made them perennial contenders in their conference, nurtured rivalries with Kansas State and Missouri, and continued experimenting with sports medicine techniques and nutritional supplements. The book shares the stories of recruiting stars like Clyde Lovellette and Wilt Chamberlain, enlisting a young John Wooden to help build Memorial Stadium, and key NCAA tournament games like the 1952 and 1953 championship games. Discussions of the legality of recruiting and critical analyses of Allen’s attitude towards race are largely absent in the book, however, as Johnson neglects to dig deeper into many of the contradictions within Allen’s life. For example, while Allen resented the NCAA for making money off of players, he also appeared confused as to why Naismith never sought to trademark or cash-in on his invention. Instead, Johnson positions Allen as an iconic and somewhat eccentric, entrepreneurial coach who was well-networked in the profession, and willing to capitalize on his reputation to travel giving motivational speeches as well as holding clinics that shared his coaching lessons and sport medicine remedies. While Allen’s influence on the game’s history is unmistakable, his significance remains largely tied to his career at Kansas.
Venerated as the “Father of Basketball Coaching,” the Kansas legislature voted to name the new field house at KU in honor of Allen in 1955. A year later, he was forced into retirement at the end of the 1956 season because of Kansas’ mandatory retirement law. Although he was initially promised an extension, it failed to materialize. The antiquated law cost him the chance to coach rising sophomore Wilt Chamberlain in 1957. The forced retirement strained his and his family’s relationship with KU.
Johnson offers an intimate portrait into Allen’s later years. The old Jayhawk coach continued to live in Lawrence throughout his retirement. He practiced medicine, gave speeches, and occasionally took in a basketball game at the Fieldhouse. He also remained as fiery as ever, writing letters to the editor and calling on Senators to investigate the NCAA and AAU’s handling of money. As his health declined, he fought to remain independent and slowly became a recluse. Allen outlived several of his children, and his wife, dying at age 88 in 1974.
The chilly relationship between Allen and KU lingered after his death. The Allen family resented KU’s attempt to capitalize on the coach’s nickname. Then the Athletic Department initially rebuffed efforts to build a statue in his honor in 1997. Eventually they acceded to the request, but offered little help in raising the money for its construction. Today, the legend of “the Phog” is a permanent fixture inside and outside of Allen Fieldhouse, and now there is a book befitting his legacy. Johnson’s biography goes a long way toward helping fans and scholars understand the man behind the legend that built Allen Fieldhouse and his outsized influence of the sport. While it lacks the critical bite and broad contextualization that most sport historians demand, it is an important contribution to our understanding of Allen’s life and the game of basketball. And you can’t fully understand the game of basketball without knowing about Phog Allen. Phog is perfect for the general reader, and supplants Blair Kerkoff’s 1996 biography of Allen as the best book about Phog Allen available.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. As a native Kansan and former interim archivist and an alum of Baker University, he grew up steeped in the lore of “Phog” Allen. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.